By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
Healthnotes Newswire (April 22, 2010)—Research points to a lack of omega-3 fat in the diet as a risk factor for heart disease. Healthy omega-3 fats are found in deep, cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines. Unfortunately, most people don’t eat enough of these foods for good health. Now researchers have found an easy way to get more of these important fats into the diet: omega-3 fortified milk.
Researchers recruited 51 adults into a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on omega-3 fats and heart disease risk factors. The participants were randomly selected to drink fortified dairy products that provided 3 grams of omega-3 fats per day or regular dairy.
After 15 weeks, the participants had a 10-week washout period during which they did not receive either dairy product. After the washout period, the participants were crossed over to the other group for another 15 weeks. Blood levels of omega-3 fats, the ratio of omega-3 to other fats, total cholesterol, and triglycerides were measured before, during, and after the study.
At the end of the 15-week period of consuming omega-3-fortified dairy, the researchers noted significant improvements in cardiovascular risk factors, as measured in blood levels:
• Omega-3 fatty acids increased
• The ratio of arachidonic acid (AA, a less-healthy fat) to omega-3s improved
• Total cholesterol levels decreased
• Triglyceride levels decreased
Know your fats
These study findings agree with the growing body of research that supports the important role of omega-3 fats in chronic disease prevention. From heart disease and cancer to autoimmune conditions and allergies, getting enough omega-3s seems to lessen risk.
Small amounts of omega-3s are found in plant foods, such as vegetable oils and nuts. The richest sources of omega-3s are fatty, cold-water fish and flaxseeds. But most of the research on the relationship between heart disease, other chronic conditions, and omega-3s has focused on the fats that come from fish. This is an important distinction: Omega-3 fats from fish are different, in terms of chemical structure, from plant omega-3s. Health experts don’t yet have enough research evidence to know if plant-based omega-3s will have the same chronic disease prevention benefits as fish fats.
Factoring in fish fat
To get the potential benefits of omega-3s, focus on fish:
• Eat a 3-ounce serving of cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, or sardines, at least two times per week.
• Pick chunk light tuna over albacore, which is higher in mercury.
• Pick sustainably harvested, wild-caught salmon over farm-raised whenever possible.
• You can try omega-3 fortified products, but keep in mind that some omega-3 fortified foods are highly processed, and not beneficial to health for that reason.
• If fish isn’t your thing, try a fish oil supplement. Most people can safely take 3 grams of omega-3 rich fish oil per day, but check with your doctor first.
(Clin Nutr 2010; published online ahead of print)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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